Muskegon: Former industrial waterfront makes room for cruise ships and passengers

Muskegon: Former industrial waterfront makes room for cruise ships and passengers
April 12, 2019 Ian Wendrow
Photo by Eagle Eye Photography via Ian Wendrow

Destinations like Niagara Falls, Chicago and Mackinac Island have been consistent passenger favorites since the Great Lakes cruise ship industry began in the 1920s.

Image by ohiodnr.gov

Great Lakes Basin, Image by ohiodnr.gov

Now, with greater investment from state and federal agencies along with buy-in from a number of coastal cities throughout the Great Lakes Basin, new stops are continually being added to cruise itineraries.

Recent efforts are raising the prospects of greater tourism revenue but those come with concerns about the added costs that could be required to remain a consistent port of call year after year.

This week, Great Lakes Now is bringing you the stories of some of these ports.

First up: Muskegon, Michigan

On a temperate October afternoon, the last smokestack of Muskegon, Michigan’s long-defunct Sappi paper mill came crumbling down in a controlled demolition.


Photo by the City of Muskegon via Cindy Larsen

Downtown Muskegon, Photo by the City of Muskegon via Cindy Larsen

Muskegon, like so many other coastal cities around the Great Lakes, once boasted a prominent industrial center along its lakeshore. And like those other cities, Muskegon has seen the end of these industries, leaving behind abandoned buildings that are being cleared away to draw in a new industry: cruise ship tourism.

“The majority of the people coming [to Muskegon] on these cruise ships are coming from the coastal region, so they’re coming out from the western states, they’re coming out from California and the northwest, they’re coming from all up and down the eastern shoreline” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

“They’re all people who have never been to the Great Lakes.”

Photo by Lucy Carpenter via Cindy Larsen

Muskegon Coastline, Photo by Lucy Carpenter via Cindy Larsen

Muskegon has been ahead of the curve with the Great Lakes cruise ship industry. The city’s tourism board had pushed for the construction of a dock some 20 years ago, and it’s currently looking where to establish a second port for larger ships.

Muskegon also benefits from a Midwest countryside quaintness that lets passengers walk from the ship and right into the downtown, where they can then travel around by trolley.

New as the city may be for American tourists, Muskegon has also been seeing increased interest from European visitors. The layout is quite similar to rivieras featured on European river cruises. Older passengers interested in early 20th century cinema come to see this favored vacation spot of stuntman, actor, and film producer Buster Keaton, who appeared in several European films during the 1920s.

“We have learned to tell our stories so much better. The fact that the trees were cut down to rebuild Chicago after the Chicago Fire [of 1871.] Everybody may have heard of the Chicago fire even if they’ve never heard of Muskegon, so we have to wrap in our history to some of the bigger stories and the history of the Great Lakes,” Larsen said.

Photo by the City of Muskegon via Cindy Larsen

Muskegon Museum of Art, Photo by the City of Muskegon via Cindy Larsen

Expanding Muskegon’s presence in the cruise industry is facing some challenges in the area of infrastructure, making sure facilities are up-to-date to cater to newer, bigger ships making port in the city. Finding volunteers has also been a challenge, as the seasonal nature of the cruise industry makes finding a consistent volunteer workforce more difficult.

Larsen and Muskegon’s tourism board hope to see the industry develop into full-time jobs for the area, but they also see the cruise and broader tourism industry as essential to keeping Muskegon economically competitive.

“In the past, we just appreciated tourism for the industry that it was and that it was definitely a key part of Muskegon’s identity and it provided a lot of jobs,” Larsen said.

“But now it’s helping to attract people here to come here and live, and with a national workforce shortage we have to use anything we can to attract people’s attention so cruise ships and tourism are a great way to put Muskegon on the map.”

Tomorrow, Traverse City

Featured Image: The Pearl 2 heading towards the channel, Photo by Eagle Eye Photography via Ian Wendrow 


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